Rafi’s Last Interview
This interview of Rafi Sahab is by Jyothi Venkatesh. It appeared in the Star & Style magazine – Aug 22 – Sept 4, 1980.
Little did I realize that this meeting would be Rafi’s last ever interview to the press. He spoke in chaste Urdu to me. Rafi was one of the few filmland celebrities who belonged to the old school of discipline. At the dot of the appointed time, Rafi was waiting for me, after doing his riyaz in the morning.
Rafi always felt that though singing was a God given gift, to maintain your voice is tough. From the year 1942, I have been in this line. I have had my ups and downs. Riyaz is a must if you want to preserve the quality of your voice. I do not smoke, I do not touch liquor. I am pained to see before my eyes, some singers who, after giving one hit song, start acting big only to fall down with a thud soon after.
A humble and publicity-shy celebrity, Rafi’s formula for success was a characteristic, Humility. It is a must for one to be successful in any field. Resorting to Urdu he explained, Kisika dil hamne kabhi dukhaya nahin. Jo kisika dil ko dukhata hai, woh kabhi tarakki nahin karega, zindagi mein.
Rafi was born on December 24, 1924, in Punjab’s Amritsar district. At a very young age, he showed an aptitude for music and he was sent to train under renowned maestro, Ustad Abdul Waheed Khan of Kirana. How he became a playback singer was described by him as follows:
Ab aap ko main kya kya bataoon? I am a native of Lahore. I belong to a very orthodox and conservative Muslim family. I used to sing at friends’ places when I was only 15. During one such occassion, Nasir Khan one of the top producer-actors at that time, spotted me and offered to take me to Bombay and groom me as a singer in films.
Khansaab had asked my father for his permission. My father had refused the offer point blank since he frowned upon the very idea of my taking up singing in films as a career. I was being trained in classical music at that time by my guru Ustad Abdul Waheed Khan of Kirana. When Nasir Khan persisted with the offer my elder brother convinced my Abaajaan to let me go to Bombay. With great reluctance my dad agreed to my pursuing a career as a singer in films.
I made by debut as a playback singer in 1942, with ‘Laila Majnu’, a Nazir – Swarnalatha starrer. The late Pandit Govindram was the music-director of the film. I sang a qawwali as part of the chorus. I had even done a bit role in the film. Later on, I acted in films like ‘Samaj Ko Badal Dalo’ and ‘Jugnu’. In ‘Gaon Ki Gori’, I sang a duet with Noor Jehan under baton of music-director Shyam Sunder.
Before his death, the singer voiced his disillusionment with the music-directors today. Rafi seemed to be visibly pained that music-directors sign films by the dozen, as a result of which the quality of music in films has deteriorated. Very few music directors today work with dedication on their tunes and compose memorable music like Laxmikant Pyarelal did in ‘Sargam’. Most of the others are in this field only to make a fast buck by copying foreign tunes and plagiarising other composers’ tunes.
And lapsing into a flash-back of those good old days, Rafi had launched into a tirade against film-making today and the role of the music director. Film-making wasn’t merely a business proposition during those days when institutions reigned supreme and free-lancing hadn’t become popular in the film industry. Believe it or not, I used to be paid a meager amount of Rs. 75/- in those days for one song!
When I entered the line, there were, of course, popular singers like Saigal Saab, G.M.Durrani and Khan Mastan. Unka Khoobi yeh tha janab ki instead of considering me as yet an other competitor they encouraged me to give my best. In fact I remember the first time I met Saigal Saab at Lahore where he had come to give a concert on the stage. The mike had failed at the last minute. While it was being set right, I was asked to keep the audience engaged by singing a couple of songs. I was only 15 then. I had not yet met Nasir Khan or Shyam Sundar. Saigal Saab blessed me that day and predicted that a day would come when I would be a sought after singer.
Melody and classical training were primary in the beginning when I set my foot in the field of film music in the early forties. Today, however, music has degenerated into just shor! In those days, I remember we singers used to help interlude music, whereas today it is the other way round. A situation has come today when the musical interludes help playback singer.
Perhaps not many are aware of the fact that Rafi wasn’t a Shylock where his payments were concerned. Unlike Kishore Kumar who won’t sing unless and until he is paid his remuneration before the recording, Rafi is said to have sung even for a token amount of one rupee! Though I insist on being paid my price by commercial film-makers who can afford it, I sing for small budget films, including regional films, for a much lower price. Money isn’t the only criterion for me to accept a film. Out of my earnings, I keep aside a sizable amount for charitable purposes but I prefer not to tom tom it because I do not want to seek publicity for those acts.
In spite of several years of experience in the field, Rafi never composed music for any film. In fact, producer-director S. Mukherjee had asked me to compose music for one of his films, sometime back. I turned down his offer because it is my firm belief that one should be perfect in only one field. Look at Talat Mahmood. He took up acting and after he could click neither as a singer nor as an actor.
The late Mukeshbhai took up production and lost heavily when the films he made flopped. If I were to agree to compose music for film today, the other music directors would start feeling that I might steal their tunes for my own films and hence they might even stop assigning me the job of singing for them.
Unfortunately, Khuda willed otherwise and took Rafi away at a time when he was once again emerging as a force to reckon with, with films like “Hum Kisise Kam Nahin”, “Amar Akbar Anthony”, “Sargam” and “Mr. Natwarlal”, after his forced exile in the early seventies when Kishore Kumar had taken over from Rafi.